Elena Berg

Assistant ProfessorDepartment of Computer Science, Math, & Science
American University of Paris

Senior Research FellowCenter for Tropical Research
UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability


Mobile: +33 7 82 48 13 04

Department of Computer Science, Math, & Science
The American University of Paris
75007 Paris France

Center for Tropical Research
Institute of the Environment
University of California, Los Angeles

La Kretz Hall, Box 951496
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1496

Research Interests

My recent research has been motivated by two primary goals.  First, I am interested in the ecology and evolution of cooperative behavior in group-living animals, particularly birds.  Second, I am drawn to multidisciplinary questions about how behavior, morphology, life history, and genetics vary across different environments and spatial scales.  The main focus of my dissertation research was on cooperative breeding, and my postdoctoral work has expanded to include a diverse range of topics, including the evolution of avian eggshell color and speckling, population genetic structure of North American songbirds, and sex differences in ageing and reproduction in seed beetles.

For my doctoral research at UC Davis, I conducted a field and laboratory study of parentage, kinship, and group structure in a Costa Rican population of the cooperatively breeding white-throated magpie-jay (Calocitta formosa).  By combining molecular analyses of parentage and kinship with information on successional change, I have begun to piece together the effects of recent forest regeneration on social and reproductive behavior in this species.  My data, combined with data from two previous studies of this population, suggest that rapid ecological change at my study site is leading to increased density of nest predators, resulting in sharp declines in magpie-jay reproductive success, decreased territoriality, lowered group stability, and an almost complete breakdown of cooperative breeding behavior in some groups.  In other words, in magpie-jays (and perhaps other species), cooperative breeding may be a facultative response to particular environmental conditions rather than a fixed trait of a species. 

Since receiving my doctorate I have conducted research on two other cooperatively breeding birds, the Mexican jay (Aphelocoma ultramarina) and the chestnut-crowned babbler (Pomatostomus ruficeps). Dr. John McCormack (Occidental College) and I collaborated on a study of eggshell variation in a population of Mexican jays inhabiting a steep habitat and elevation gradient in the Sierra del Carmen mountains of Coahuila, Mexico.  We are currently expanding this study into a long-term examination of behavioral, morphological, and genetic variation in this system.  In Australia, I collaborated with Dr. Andrew Russell (University of Exeter) on a similar study of eggshell variation in the chestnut-crowned babbler.

Another theme of my research is the use of molecular markers, such as DNA microsatellites, DNA sequences, and amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) to examine population genetic structure of songbirds.  As a postdoctoral fellow in Tom Smith’s lab at UCLA during 2004-2006 and again during the fall of 2008, I used molecular tools to investigate the population genetic structure of several North American songbird species, including the colonially breeding tricolored blackbird (Agelaius tricolor), a California Species of Special Concern.  In the future I will continue to build on my research in both animal behavior and population biology, organizing this diverse array of projects around the central theme of “intraspecific variation across environments.”

In September 2010, I began exploring a very different topic in evolutionary biology, the evolution of ageing and senescence.  Using the seed beetle Callosobruchus maculatus as a model organism, I am conducting artificial selection experiments and fitness assays to investigate sex differences in ageing and the tradeoffs between reproductive investment and lifespan.  For more information on this topic, please see my Uppsala University webpage,


Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Animal Ecology, Department of Ecology & Evolution, Uppsala University.  Sept 2010 – December 2013

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Biology, Portland State University, Portland, OR.  February 2008 – May 2009.

Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University.  October 2006 – October 2007.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Center for Tropical Research, University of California, Los Angeles.  October 2004 – October 2006, September – December 2008.

Ph.D., Animal Behavior, University of California, Davis.  June 2004.

Master of Philosophy, Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge, England, September 1996.

Bachelor of Arts, Anthropology and College Scholar, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.  May 1995.


Berg, E. C. and Maklakov, A. A. 2012. Sexes suffer from suboptimal lifespan because of genetic conflict in a seed beetle. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 279: 4296-4302. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1345

McCormack, J. M. and E. C. Berg. 2010.  Small-scale differentiation in egg colour along an elevation gradient in Mexican jays. The Auk 127(1): 35-43.

Berg, E. C. and R. W. Van Buskirk. 2010 (invited submission).  Intraspecific Behavior.  In: The Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Behaviour & Welfare (D. Mills, ed.). CAB International Publishing: Wallingford, UK.

Berg, E. C., J. M. Eadie, T. A. Langen, and A. F. Russell. 2009.  Reverse sex-biased philopatry in a cooperative bird: genetic consequences and a social cause.  Molecular Ecology 18: 3486-3499.

Berg, E. C., J. E. McCormack, and T. B. Smith. 2009.  Test of an adaptive hypothesis for egg speckling along an elevational gradient in a population of Mexican jays (Aphelocoma ultramarina).  Journal of Avian Biology 40(4): 448-452.

Ellis, J. M. S., T. A. Langen, and E. C. Berg. 2009.  Signaling for food and sex? Begging by reproductive female white-throated magpie-jays.  Animal Behaviour 78: 615-623.

Roy, C., J. M. Eadie, E. M. Schauber, N. S. Odell, E. C. Berg, and T. Moore. 2009.  Public information and conspecific nest parasitism in wood ducks: does nest density influence quality of information? Animal Behaviour 77(6): 1367-1373.

Berg, E. C. and D. A. Williams. 2007 (invited submission). Studying individual interactions and direct fitness benefits in wild birds: history and practice. Behavioural Processes 76(2): 163-166.

Berg, E. C. 2005.  Parentage and reproductive success in the white-throated magpie-jay (Calocitta formosa), a cooperative breeder with female helpers.  Animal Behaviour 70: 375-385.

Berg, E. C. 2004.  A test of sex ratio biasing in the white-throated magpie-jay, a cooperative breeder with female helpers.  The Condor 106: 299-308.

Williams, D. A., E. C. Berg, A. M. Hale, and C. R. Hughes. 2004.  Characterization of microsatellites for parentage studies of white-throated magpie-jays (Calocitta formosa) and brown jays (Cyanocorax morio).  Molecular Ecology Notes 4(3): 509-511.

Wright, J., E. Berg, S. R. DeKort, V. Khazin, and A. A. Maklakov. 2001.  Safe selfish sentinels in a cooperative bird. Journal of Animal Ecology 70(6): 1070-1079.

Wright, J., E. Berg, S. R. DeKort, V. Khazin, and A. A. Maklakov. 2001.  Cooperative sentinel behaviour in the Arabian babbler.  Animal Behaviour 62(5): 973-979.

Honors and Awards

  • Carl Tryggers Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship (2010 – 2012)
  • Research grant from Swedish Stiftelsen för Zoologisk Forskning, Uppsala University
  • German Volkswagen Foundation grant to run symposium in evolutionary biology in 2010
  • Funding from Audubon Society and the CA Department of Fish & Game for study of population structure in the tricolored blackbird
  • American Philosophical Society Franklin Research Grant
  • Approved by UCLA as co-PI on NIH NIAID grant on avian malaria
  • Honorable mention, Warner Clyde Allee Award, Animal Behavior Society Meeting, Oaxaca, Mexico, June 2004
  • NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant (PI: Dr. John Eadie)
  • UC Davis Sherley Ashton Scholarship
  • Chapman Memorial Fund Research Awards
  • Wilson Ornithological Society Louis Agassiz Fuertes Award
  • Animal Behavior Society Student Research Grant
  • American Ornithologists’ Union Blake Award
  • UC Davis & Humanities Graduate Research Awards
  • UC Davis Jastro-Shields Graduate Research Awards
  • UC Davis Center for Population Biology Research Awards
  • Sigma Xi Grants-in-Aid of Research
  • UCD Professors for the Future Fellow
  • Phi Beta Kappa Graduate Scholarship
  • UC Davis Center for Population Biology GRT award
  • UC Davis Internal Fellowships
  • UC Davis DBS Summer Research Fellowships
  • UC Davis Center for Population Biology ARCS Scholarship
  • NSF Research Training Grant in Animal Behavior Fellowships
  • UC Davis Tracy and Ruth Risdon Storer Scholarship
  • UC Davis Tracy and Ruth Risdon Storer Non-Resident Tuition Fellowship
  • 1995 British Marshall Scholarship

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